Music Production: My Advice to My Younger Producer Self
I watched this interview once with Brody Brown (producer for Bruno Mars) on Pensado’s Place, and they asked the question “Of all the songs you write, how many of them end up being hits?”. Brody said something like “maybe 1 in a 100 (or 1000, I can’t remember), it’s a lot”.
For whatever reason, this came to mind last night and I decided to take a little trip down memory lane. Luckily, I export most of my songs and throw them on Google Drive periodically to check how they translate, so I have an entire folder full of old songs from the past 4 years or so. I also have an old SoundCloud account I used to post all my WIP (works in progress) on, so it wasn’t too hard to go back and listen.
It was pretty cool to go back and hear all the stuff I’d worked on over the years, especially the gradual progression you see over time. The stuff I was doing 4+ years ago was just cringe-worthy, but I remember thinking I was the shiz at the time. Dunning-Kruger effect at it’s finest. But of the 30 or 40 tracks I listened to, I actually found a couple old gems that I’d forgotten about. Maybe 3 tracks I’d done that I actually genuinely enjoyed listening to today. Pretty crazy how time gives you a little more perspective.
Anyways, it got me thinking about general advice I would’ve given to my former self, if given the chance. Of it’s just dumb little things, but it’d be nice to have.
First, start a spreadsheet where you can put all your songs in the order you produced them. Thinking about it last night, that would’ve been soooo nice to have, just so I could track my progress over time. Just record the track name, artist, month, and year it was produced. It would’ve been easy to set up and keep up to date over time, but looking at the list now, trying to track down all those details is going to be time-consuming, lol.
Second, don’t fall into the trap of free plugins. I remember going through a phase in which I downloaded every free plugin I could find, with the justification of “the more sounds I can get, the better, even if they suck.” Yeah, nah, that was a terrible idea, and really screwed with my sonic quality for a lot of those early years. The only free plugins that are worth downloading are Xfer’s OTT (if you don’t have Ableton), Camel Crusher, Voxengo Span, Softube Saturation Knob, Limiter No6 if you don’t have a good limiter, and maybe a few free Kontakt Libraries (Pallette Primary Colors, for example). I can’t think of any other free plugins I use regularly. If you need to know which plugins to buy, check out my “Most Used Plugins” article.
Third (this one I didn’t have a huge problem with, but I’m including it because I know a few of you reading this definitely have this problem), don’t get into this business because you think you’re going to be the next big thing.
I’ve always made music because I love it. I’ll admit I went through a phase where I was convinced I was going to make it big, but I got over it pretty quickly, luckily. But I also spent years touring with bands-for-hire, so I was already pretty familiar with the industry. This industry is cutthroat and brutal. It takes cunning and strategy if you want to do well. That or be willing to sell your soul and/or body and relinquish any control you thought you had over your own life, lol.
Now I’m not saying that to discourage you, just be prepared. You have to realize that no matter what level you’re at, you’re competing with everyone else in the industry. Me, Skrillex, Post Malone… we’re all your competitors. You have to know the right people, have the right skills, and be extraordinarily lucky. There’s talent everywhere, and usually they’re better than you. I’ve met insane-level talent that play bar gigs every night. I’ve heard records by local musicians that are on par with some of the stuff in the big leagues. You’re not special. At least not yet. Be prepared for the work it’s going to take to get you where you want to be. Love the process, not the potential end result.
Fourth, learn your gear, and don’t be afraid of cliches. I’ve always had this obsession with being different, so I’d always make myself use different gear, arrangement patterns, instrumentation, etc. You need to do that stuff (to a certain extent) in order to set yourself apart, but, as I once heard Kyle Trewartha say in an Instagram post, “if you’re writing pop, you still need an anchor. Something that people like and are used to.” For example, using an 808 bass as an anchor, then using something like a violin or an erhu or something to make yourself different.
But I fell into this dumb trap of thinking I could process my audio without the gear everyone else was using. “I’ll use this free compressor plugin instead of an LA-2A because then I’ll sound different.” Yeah, nah, terrible idea. There’s a reason those units are so popular, and it’s because they work. Really well. And usually save you a lot of time. But at the end of the day, your skill as a mix engineer comes down to how you mix, not what you’re using to mix. Don’t limit your gear choices just because you want to be unique. That’s not going to make your mix unique enough to really set you apart (especially if that gear sucks). Using the reputable gear and honing your mixing skills will do far more for you than trying to force yourself to use something else. Definitely try new things and constantly be experimenting, but don’t limit yourself just because some piece of gear is cliche or whatever. SSL boards are cliche for a reason. Because they sound amazing. Once your skills are high enough, then the gear you use will be a more significant factor, but in the first few years… stick to the reputable stuff.
Similarly, don’t be afraid of cliches in your productions, just use them sparingly. As I once heard Madeon say, “Cliches are cliches because they’re powerful.”. They work really well. That 808 trap hat sound is a good example. It started in hip hop, but I can’t think of very many styles that don’t use it now. It’s a cliche and will never make you sound unique, but man, they work great. I did a hip hop track the other day and it was the hats that really got it grooving. Use them sparingly, but don’t be afraid to use them.
Fifth, music is made to be shared. For whatever reason, I was always too shy to ever release any of my personal music. Most of the past 4 years or so stays hidden on my laptop. Don’t fall into that trap like me. Music, by design, is made to be shared. Share it. Doesn’t matter if it sucks. It’ll increase your motivation and support channels. Don’t be like me. Release it.
Sixth, being a perfectionist is a waste of time. You’ll learn this over time, but music actually sounds better when it’s slightly imperfect. The humanity of the sounds is what makes them sound good. There’s an easy way to test this. When you’re programming your drums, try a track where you have all the kicks locked to the grid, then record that same kick drum part, but play those kicks on a MIDI keyboard or whatever. Which grooves harder? Look at the MIDI notes. You’ll notice the kicks you just played live are all slightly off the grid, maybe only 10–30 ms behind or ahead of the beat (if you’re good at playing, that is). And it still grooves harder than the stuff locked to the grid. Our ears like that stuff better. As humans, we’re inherently not perfect, and your music shouldn’t be either. Do what you can to stay away from editing/quantizing your MIDI tracks, and instead focus on realistic performance. I promise you’ll get better results.
And finally, use reference tracks. GOOD reference tracks. For every part of the process. I went through this phase where I thought I was better than a lot of these engineers because I had newer technology. Nope, screwed me over for like a full year. Using reference tracks is hard, I get it, but force yourself to use them. You’ll get better way faster than anybody who isn’t using them. Learn from the pros, don’t try and go at yourself.
And the bonus round, get yourself a pair of mid-heavy mix speakers, like the NS-10s or Auratones. I’ve only had my Auratones for a week and I’ve learned soooo much. I compared my mixes to some of the ones I was doing only a few months ago, and there’s no comparison. The ones done on the Auratones are in a different league than my previous ones. Makes me want to go back and mix all those tracks again, lol.
Overall, I’ve still got loads to learn, but I hope you can avoid some of the traps I fell into.
Good luck, have fun!